It's been referred to as the last noble cause, or the last heroic war. It's also been said it was the war that if the British and the Americans had bothered with it could have prevented World War Two. The Spanish Civil War lasted from 1936 through 1939 and by the end Fransico Franco had overthrown the democratically elected government.
The election prior to the outbreak of the war had seen a coalition government formed among moderate and socialist parties. The Republican government's goals were to reduce the power of the aristocracy and the Catholic Church and try to redress the economic disparity in the country.
Needless to say that went over like the proverbial ton of bricks with those who were going to have to surrender their power. Calling themselves The Nationalists they formed an army under the leadership of Francisco Franco to overthrow the Republican government.. They were supplied with weapons, air support, tanks, and troops by the governments of Italy and Germany almost immediately.
The Republicans received little or no official help from any government, save some assistance from the Soviet Union that was too little and too late. In some ways the Republican side was a typical venture of the left and centre in those, and even these days, where internal fights over power, took precedence over an enemy out to destroy you all. Soviet aid only became available after a faction acceptable to Moscow controlled a goodly portion of the doomed government.
The Spanish Civil War was also notable for two other reasons. It was where the Nazis first put into effect their practice of targeting strictly civilian targets for the sake of the effect on morale. First Guernica, rendered forever immortal by Picasso; then Madrid suffered through bombings.
The other was the fact that in spite of their own government's refusal to oppose Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco (Until Hitler signed his infamous non-aggression pact with Stalin, he was actually seen as a bulwark against the Red hoards by far too many Western pundits) young men and women from around the world came to Spain on their own to fight for the Republican cause.
The International Brigade was composed of German, American, Canadian, and others from across Europe who came to fight the fascists. The American soldiers served in what became known as the Lincoln Brigade and became part of the 15th International Brigade. Since there own governments had refused to aid the Republicans, and in some instances had tried their best to prevent people from doing so, it wasn't very surprising that the returning soldiers at the end of the war were ignored in their own countries.
Some of them, like the Germans and the Italian of course, had to become refugees because they couldn't go home again. When it became obvious that nothing was going to be done to honour their efforts, and in fact official policy has been to ignore the veterans of Spain almost entirely, Pete Seeger and the Almanac singers recorded seven songs that had been sung by the Lincoln Brigade while marching. In 1943 they were released as part of an album called Songs Of The Lincoln Brigade.
For the longest time it has been next to impossible to find this and other music of the Spanish Civil War. But now thanks to the Spanish label, Discmedi, they and other music of the war has been released on a great CD called Canciones De Las Brigadas Internacionales (Songs Of The International Brigade).
The first seven songs are the aforementioned tracks from Songs Of The Lincoln Brigadewhich have been beautifully digitally re mastered so they sound great. The six songs that follow that were originally released in 1940, but had been actually recorded during the war. The German actor Ernst Busch, who was already living in exile from Hitler due to his politics, recorded six songs with a chorus of soldiers called Six Songs For Democracy.
They were recorded in the men's barracks so if you listen closely you can hear background noises of wartime activity. Again the sound is great, and it's really nice not to hear these songs like they're being sung to you via a sewer pipe. The only previous recording I had heard of them was so full of echoes it was almost impossible to hear what was being sung.
Following these thirteen tracks, the producers of the disc have gathered together some performances of these and other songs of the period by different performers as bonus tracks. Six of them are by Ernst Busch again and are Spanish versions of some of the songs that had been performed by Pete Seeger and The Almanac Singers on the Songs Of The Lincoln Brigade album. Again he has recorded them with soldiers serving during the war, and in fact this recording was interrupted by Franco's bombing of Barcelona. On occasion you can hear where a brown out is occurring as the sound starts to fade away: life during wartime indeed.
Ernst's voice may not be what a North American audience would expect from a musical theatre actor, but he had been working with Bertolt Brecht in Germany, and they had a different attitude towards what sound they wanted on stage. Brecht wasn't interested in pretty, or in polish; he wanted the audience to listen to the words being sung to them, not to just sit back and enjoy the music.
After Busch, we have a brief visit with Woody Guthrie as he sings his version of "Jarama Valley". What's great about this song, as you will have noticed in The Almanac Singers' version earlier on the disc, is that the tune is "Red Rive Valley". The soldiers who wrote these songs had done what was fairly typical for the day, and just changed the lyrics of songs they were already familiar with to make them suit there needs.
The last four songs on the disc are from what I consider two of the United States' finest treasures; The Weavers and Paul Robeson. Paul Robeson was a star football player, Broadway and Hollywood actor, and amazing singer. He was also Black and left wing, which in the 1940s and 50s meant he was considered a threat to society.
He had his passport revoked by the American government so he could no longer travel to do concert tours in Europe. This pretty much guaranteed the end of his singing career, as very few venues in the States would book anyone who was blacklisted by Joe McCarthy. But here we find him in full beautiful voice singing two of the songs he learned from the soldiers when he went to Spain during the War to lend his support to the cause. His version of "The Peat-Bog Soldiers" has to be one of the best I've ever heard even to this day.
The last two songs included are by the Weavers. Somehow or other the Weavers were able to play the music of the Spanish Civil War during the 1950's in places like Carnegie Hall without people really twigging to what was going on. Included here are two of those songs; both were recorded in Carnegie Hall but one in the fifties and one in their reunion concert in the eighties.
The producers have also included a very good informative booklet with information about both the Spanish Civil War and the musicians who sang the songs on the disc. It is one of the best of these types of booklets that I've seen in a long time; nicely laid out with text that is not impossible to read. If you are multilingual you can read it three times, in Spanish, English, and German.
In Spain today the soldiers who fought in the International Brigade are still considered heroes of the country, in North America where they came from they've either been almost completely forgotten, and even worse some were treated like criminals by their own governments. Canciones De Las Brigades Internacionales is wonderful tribute to men who have been ignored for too long.
(Originally posted January 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.